Stepping off the tube at Holland Park, you can always hear it before you see it. The rhythmic soca beat thuds in the distance, faint echoes of singing and cheering cut through the usually rarefied quiet. A colourful trail of feathers and tinnies provides a makeshift route map, weaving through the pristine streets of Ladbroke Grove until you burst all at once into a cacophony of sound and smell, swept into a kaleidoscopic parade of gyrating hips and infectious laughter.
Notting Hill Carnival is now a staple in London’s calendar. Taking place every year over the August bank holiday, it is the biggest street party in Europe, attracting revellers of all ages and ethnicities looking for an opportunity to let their hair down in an alcohol-infused collective dance party.
But Carnival has not always looked like this. The euphoric celebrations that now characterise the weekend mask a traumatic and pained racial history that is often overlooked, and at times has been deliberately misrepresented.
Taking a walk through the area now, it is hard to imagine that in the 1950s, Notting Hill was extremely deprived, and home to a large West Indian community following the arrival in London of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948. It was, however, also a stronghold for Oswald Mosley’s far-right Union party, which included a large group of extremist young white men and Teddy Boy gangs who would routinely target the West Indian community in the area.
On 29 August 1958, Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond outside Latimer Road tube station. A group of white people attempted to intervene, and a small fight broke out between them and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends. The following day, Majbritt was verbally and physically assaulted by a gang of white Teddy Boys who had recalled seeing her the night before, throwing milk bottles and hurling racial insults such as “Black man’s trollop”.
The argument was a catalyst for what became some of the worst nights of racially motivated violence that the UK has ever seen. Hundreds of young white men took to the streets, throwing home-made firebombs at the houses of black residents. As one resident described the experience to the BBC, “They’re marking the outside of the houses for the [Teddy] Boys to know where to bomb and where not to bomb.”
The first night left five black men lying unconscious on the streets of Notting Hill. The violence continued to rage for five days over the bank holiday weekend as the black community responded with counterattacks. Thomas Williams was stopped by the police as he came out of Bluey’s Club on Talbot Road. He was found to have a piece of iron down his trouser leg, a petrol bomb in his pocket and a open razor blade in his inside breast pocket: “I have to protect myself,” he told the arresting officer.
At the time, the true extent of the violence and its racial motivations were not fully exposed. Senior Metropolitan police officers attempted to dismiss the violence as the work of “ruffians, both coloured and white” hellbent on hooliganism. But confidential police files released in 2002 confirm what many in the black community already knew to be true: that the unrest was overwhelmingly instigated by 300-to 400-strong “Keep Britain White” mobs, many of them Teddy Boys armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts, who went on a rampage among the West Indian residents of Notting Hill. The files, which were closed under the 75-year rule but were released early, show that senior officers tried to convince the then home secretary, “Rab” Butler, that there had been no real racial element to the rioting.
Among testmonies from police officers was that of PC Richard Bedford, who said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We’ll murder the bastards.”
In an attempt to ease ongoing tensions, Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones organised a Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. In many ways, the event foreshadowed Carnival today: a steel band played with masqueraders and calypso performers, and the iconic Carnival Queen competition took place.
A few months later in May 1959, when 32-year-old Antiguan-born carpenter and aspiring lawyer Kelso Cochrane was killed in Notting Hill in a racially motivated attack, it was clear that something more had to be done to uplift the area’s black community.
It is from these profoundly painful and traumatic events that Notting Hill Carnival stems. Shifting from a town hall to the streets, it began to fully take shape in 1966, when community activists Rhaune Laslett and Andre Shervington organised a street fayre for children in Notting Hill. A street party for neighbourhood children turned into a carnival procession when well-known musician Russell Henderson’s steel band went on a walking tour and most of the community joined in. Combining elements from Claudia Jones’s 1959 celebration, it came to form what we now recognise as Notting Hill Carnival: music, dancing and community processing through the streets of west London.
The violence that erupted in Notting Hill in the 1950s deeply shocked Britain. For the first time, it became clear that the nation was not above the kind of racial conflict being played out in the American deep south at the same time.
Attending Carnival nowadays, it is tempting to believe that these racial tensions that characterised the area 70 years ago have been relegated to the annals of history. Scanning the crowds this year, you’ll be just as likely to see bucket hats and gun fingers as string vests and feathers. It is a successful melting pot of different races and age groups, showcasing the best of London’s diversity.
But there are still underlying issues that continue to blight the community. The Notting Hill of today is almost unrecognisable from the burgeoning West Indian community of the Fifties. Now one of the most affluent areas in the country, pristine multi-million pound houses line the streets without so much as a curtain out of place (including those belonging to the Beckhams and Jeremy Clarkson). It is a microcosm of the gentrification that has affected many of London’s ex-immigration hotspots, pushing out residents who can no longer afford the skyrocketing rents.
Grenfell Tower can be seen clearly from Notting Hill Carnival’s parade route. It looms over the celebrations, standing as a stark reminder of the ongoing inequality that black and brown communities in the area still face. Of the residents who died in the 2017 fire, 85 per cent were ethnic minorities. Many in the tower block did not speak English as their first language, and felt this meant their concerns were dismissed by the council during and after a refurbishment project that it is now clear exacerbated the fire. In the days after the fire, hundreds of angry protestors descended on the offices of Kensington town hall, furious at the way concerns raised by residents had been ignored.
Five years on from the disaster, the organisers will almost certainly pay tribute to the victims during the parade. As attendees, it is our duty to remember them, and the West Indian community of the 1950s, as well.